As I have been warning since at least 1994 that a Russia-Ukraine conflict leading a major power war was a real possibility,1 I would prefer not to warn again that the worse is yet to come.
It would have been great if Russian President Putin had announced a cease fire on the May 9 Victory Day and had publicly stated his intent to negotiate a peace settlement and withdraw Russian forces. That evidently did not prove to be the case.
There appear to be a few glimmers that diplomacy is still possible—but a lasting peace can only be reached through diplomacy once, and if, the two sides can soon reach a “hurting stalemate”2 on the battlefield.
The failure to engage in diplomacy with Russia
In his May 9, 2022 Victory Day speech, in which he did not use the words “war” or “Ukraine,” Putin complained that the U.S. and NATO had refused to work with Moscow to form a new post-Cold War European security order. In Putin’s view, Moscow had “urged Europe to find a fair compromise, but they didn't want to hear us.”
On this point, Putin is not entirely wrong. The fact of the matter is that the U.S., NATO, and Europeans did not fully reach out to Russia to formulate a new system of European Security at the end of the Cold War and after Putin came to power.
And while it was Putin who dangerously initiated this horrific conflict as a preclusive intervention that is now devastating Ukraine, destabilizing the Russian and global economy, while pressing Russia even closer into the claws of the Chinese Dragon, the U.S. and EU cannot escape their own responsibility for provoking this onslaught—by building up Ukraine with NATO assistance and by backing Kyiv’s goals to regain the Donbass and Crimea.
Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, who sought close relations with the U.S. and Europe, among other Russian elites, repeatedly warned that NATO enlargement into former Soviet space would spark a Russian pan-nationalist backlash. There was even a time when Putin expressed interest in Russia joining NATO—but this was assuming that NATO would be able to reform itself and accept Moscow as a nuclear member, somewhat similar to nuclear France which is a member of NATO, but not a member of its integrated nuclear command.
Contrary to the pro-NATO enlargement position, the U.S., NATO, the Europeans, and Russia could have worked together to forge a new system of non-threatening Euro-Atlantic security. This approach would have involved the deployment of Partnership for Peace peacekeepers in the formation of a militarily integrated system of defense and security for all eastern European states, including Ukraine, that could have been backed initially by conjoint NATO, EU, and Russian security assurances. Over time, the Partnership for Peace would lead all of the countries involved to obtain security guarantees once regional political-economic disputes were resolved.
Proposed by the first term Clinton administration, the Partnership for Peace and deep reforms of NATO had been urged by then Defense Secretary William Perry, by two former Supreme Allied Commanders, Europe, General Andrew Goodpaster and General John Galvin, and by Cold Warrior Paul Nitze, among many other high-level American officials. These critics of NATO enlargement realized that Russia would see NATO expansion—without significant reforms—as a “new form of containment” and argued for the necessity to include, not exclude, Moscow in a new system of Euro-Atlantic security.3
Yet, by late 1994-95, after Ukraine had signed the 1994 Budapest Accords, that provided Ukraine with U.S., UK, and Russian security assurances, not security guarantees, for giving up its left over Soviet nuclear weaponry, President Bill Clinton opted to expand NATO in its traditional form as a collective defense organization—thereby excluding Russia in the process and largely abandoning the Partnership for Peace. Then, in the period 1997-99, after having expanded to eastern Germany, NATO enlarged its membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary.
While Moscow could possibly have stomached this phase of NATO enlargement without a backlash, as it did not cross Moscow’s major “Red Lines” of the Baltic States and Ukraine, what Moscow could not stomach was NATO’s air war over Kosovo and the bombing of its historical ally, Serbia. In the false argument that NATO must “go out of area” or “go out of business” that was used to justify NATO involvement in both Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO’s air war over Kosovo was one of the prime factors causing a pan-nationalist Russian backlash under Putin.
The 1999 air war over Kosovo undermined the hopes of then pro-Western Russians that Moscow could work with Washington and the Europeans as equals. Here, for example, the Kosovo conflict between the Serbs and Albanian Kosovars could have been managed by the deployment of a joint NATO-Russia interpositionary force as had been proposed by Moscow.
This proposal, however, was rejected by the Clinton administration and the U.S. Congress who did not want to put U.S. troops on the ground—but who were very willing to support an air campaign. In fact, Clinton started to bomb Belgrade before Moscow could articulate its proposal so that Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov’s plane turned around in mid-flight rather than discuss the conflict with Washington.4 And even though he could not be certain that NATO and Russia could have engaged in a joint policy with respect to the Kosovo conflict, U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, stated, “I don’t think NATO tried very hard” to reach a common approach with Russia over Kosovo.5
The air war over Kosovo was accordingly a major factor leading Putin not to trust the U.S. and NATO. This does not mean that NATO “had quite different plans” to attack Russia as Putin implied in his May 9th Victory Day address. Nevertheless, given the fact that both NATO’s 1999 war over Kosovo and the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq were fought without a UN Security Council mandate, and that NATO then expanded to the Baltic states—one of the Russian “Red Lines” in the “Big Bang” NATO enlargement in 2004—meant that Moscow had no real political say in issues that it believed were “vital” to its own security—even after Moscow had become a member of the NATO-Russia Council in 2002.
For its part, the EU could have tried much harder to find a way to draw Russia into a closer political-economic relationship so that the EU’s Eastern Partnership of 2008-09, plus the EU-Ukraine Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) of 2013-14, would not have alienated Moscow. When Putin was asked by German Chancellor Merkel what was his biggest mistake in dealing with the West, Merkel said Putin responded, “to trust you.”6
While NATO claims it has no responsibility in causing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the fact of the matter is that Washington knew that promises of NATO enlargement to both Georgia and Ukraine would risk provoking Moscow into a possible military intervention in both of those countries—but the U.S. did not take any significant step to engage in real diplomacy and at least try to forge a new European Security treaty as requested by Moscow.
After the 2008 Georgia-Russia war, Moscow then engaged in political-military intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea—in part in the fear that Kyiv would hand its Sevastopol military base leased to Ukraine over to NATO. As Kyiv then attempted to gain international support for the return of the Crimea through its “Crimea platform,” coupled with the U.S.-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership on November 10, 2021, not to overlook the increased shelling in the Donbas region in the weeks before the war, Putin took the disastrous step of building up Russian military forces and of invading Ukraine in February 2022—an intervention which he justified in his May 9 address as a “preventive strike against the aggressor.”
Not-so-ironically, Putin’s rationale for the use of “preventive” force was not entirely different than that of George W. Bush who had justified the 2003 Iraq war as “preventive.” The fact of the matter is that both the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Russian invasion of Ukraine represent acts of “preclusive imperialism” based upon future fears, correct or incorrect, that Iraq might have obtained nuclear weapons in the U.S. view and that Ukraine might ultimately regain a nuclear deterrent or be backed by NATO’s nuclear alliance sometime in the future in the Russian view.
Both wars were the result of failed diplomacy.
From failed diplomacy to a disastrous war
In seeking revenge for Soviet break-up and in opposing Ukraine’s claims to independence and efforts to join NATO, Putin apparently believed that his invasion of Ukraine would go just as smoothly as did his bloodless annexation of Crimea. Yet the strong Ukrainian resistance since February 2022 proved him wrong. As he was unable to take Kyiv as he had initially planned, Putin subsequently shifted his goals to focus on seizing most of southeastern Ukraine.
In addition to expanding Russian controls over the Donbass and trying to take over the port of Mariupol, Putin hopes to hold onto Kherson in an operation called North Tavriya that will secure a supply of water to Crimea. Next, he appears to want to take Odessa. Should Kyiv lose Odessa it would permit Russia to obtain the total control over Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.
As their respective forces continue to slug it out in the muddy rasputitsa, and in scenes of horrific urban destruction, Russia appears to be making gains in some regions, while losing in others as in the Kharkiv region—setting the stage for an ugly, very long and very costly war.
The real threat of nuclear war
Given the unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance—in large part due to NATO training, armaments, and U.S. logistical assistance which has reportedly permitted Kyiv to target Russian warships and even assassinate Russian generals, the latter denied by Washington—it now appears possible for Kyiv to roll back Moscow’s revanchist gains in the Donbas region, if not attempt to regain the Crimea—given Pentagon efforts to “weaken” Russia in a war of attrition. With strong Congressional support, the Biden administration has proposed more than $47 billion in Lend Lease military aid and assistance to Ukraine in addition to seeking military supports from nearly 40 other states.
As the situation escalates, Moscow could, in response, try to draw the forces of Belarus into the conflict while engaging forces from Transnistria in Moldova in the effort to seize Odessa, possibly opening a new front in Moldova. And if the war does continue to widen, it is possible that Georgia, for example, could act against Russian-controlled territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia or that Azerbaijan could attack Russian-backed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, among other possibilities.
The risk is that Russian defeat on the battlefield could impel Putin to engage in even more extreme violence. Putin could formally declare war against the U.S. and NATO as “co-belligerents,” declare martial law, mobilize the Russian population, and opt to attack NATO supply lines. This could impel the US and NATO to more directly enter the war to enforce a no-fly zone, for example.
If really pressed, Putin could deploy some of Russia’s estimated 2000 tactical nuclear weapons—in the option to “escalate in order to deescalate” that should not be downplayed. Here, Russia is not alone as the strategy of using tactical nuclear weapons, which was developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s, is also being resurrected on the American side by the modernization of B-61-12 tactical nuclear weapons. The stated purpose of using tactical nukes is ironically to avert a total nuclear holocaust—in the argument that one could fight and supposedly “win” a horrific “limited” nuclear war.
The latter argument depends on the assumption that both sides will play by the same rules.7 Yet in the post-Cold War age of hybrid and cyber warfare, most arms treaties have broken down, and the new rules of warfare, which now apparently permit the killing of Iranian and Russian Generals against Kant’s warnings against assassination in his work, Perpetual Peace, for example, have not yet been established. And the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is in its death throes—in the sense that nuclear weapons no longer possess the same deterrent role as was believed in the Cold War.
And if Moscow believes it is confronted by an “existential threat,” it could possibly use nuclear weapons against NATO members, while threatening the U.S. territory itself with strategic nuclear weapons. The danger is that his repeated threats to use nuclear weapons could impel Putin to use such weaponry—so that he does not lose his credibility for not defending his “Red Lines.”
As Putin’s repeated nuclear threats can lead the U.S. and NATO to engage with Moscow in Brinkman & Womanship, it is crucial for the U.S. and Europeans to define viable political goals that do not include regime change or that pose an “existential threat” to Russia or really to Putin himself. The more Putin fears possible attempts to overthrow his corrupt leadership—even if the U.S. does not directly support anti-Putin factions seeking regime change—the more Putin will dig in and react like a cornered bear… And even if Putin should fall from power, it is not certain that pro-U.S. and European factions will necessarily win the power struggle.
In this regard, the U.S. and Europeans should “remember Pearl Harbor” and how U.S. policy had worked to freeze Japanese assets and prevent Japan from purchasing oil—thereby resulting in the Kamikaze Japanese attack on American territory. Somewhat similarly, if Moscow is so strongly sanctioned that its political economy begins to collapse, and if Russian elites fear the potential disaggregation of the Russian Federation and civil war, as occurred in Tsarist Russia in the aftermath of World War I, Moscow could then choose the nuclear option.
Yet even if Moscow does not choose the nuclear option, the conflict could soon expand beyond Ukraine. The Russians could seek to open new fronts by more strongly supporting Iran against American targets in the wider Middle East or more strongly back North Korean nuclear threats in addition to more overtly backing China’s irredentist claims to Taiwan.
Such would be the beginning of a global war.
Toward a diplomatic settlement?
On the one hand, the issue as to which territories will be controlled by either Kyiv or Moscow will be decided on the battlefield—and not by diplomacy. On the other hand, the diplomatic question is whether the two sides will enter into a “hurting stalemate” where both leaderships realize that they can go no farther and are impelled to reach a compromise. If, however, there is no hurting stalemate, this war could drag on for years—if not expand to a world war as political-economic instability impacts more and more countries and new fronts begin to open up.
It is absolutely crucial for French President Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Erdogan, and others to continue to talk to Putin. Not to talk to Putin is to augment his fears of regime change—that he could suffer the same fate of Saddam Hussein or Colonel Qadhafi. This is a real danger: Biden himself has begun to worry that Putin does not possess a face-saving “way out” of the conflict, and the U.S. needs to “figure out” what to do about that. That will mean that Biden himself will need to engage in real diplomacy.
Could Kyiv and Washington eventually accept a “concession” to Moscow, by accepting Russian controls over Donetsk and Luhansk, in addition to Putin’s annexation of Crimea—while saving Odessa from Russian imperialism? Would Kyiv accept that option to end the war?
Or will the Ukrainian struggle continue indefinitely in an effort to force Russian troops out of most, if not all, of Ukraine, including Crimea? If so, how will Moscow react? Will it accept deeper concessions? Or will it fight back in even more extreme ways? Is it really worth the risk, the death and destruction not to accept in realist terms what will most likely be an “unjust peace”?
If a political settlement can eventually be achieved, it appears highly dubious that Kyiv will join NATO, even if it is now backed more strongly by NATO. Instead, Kyiv will need to adopt a “neutral” and a partially demilitarized stance in order to obtain Russian agreement. One option is the deployment of international peace forces under a general OSCE or UN mandate in areas disputed by both sides which could possibly include areas in southern and eastern Ukraine, for example. International peacekeepers can likewise assist much-needed reconstruction efforts—a deployment that must prove more successful than was the case for Afghanistan—and that can help provide Kyiv with the stronger security assurances that it expects.
There will be no resolution to this horrific conflict in the near term—unless there is a hurting stalemate on the ground that can lead to a cease fire and then to a Ukraine-Russia peace settlement that is strongly supported by the Europeans, the Chinese—and most importantly, the Americans. The time for diplomacy is now.
1 Hall Gardner, Surviving the Millennium: American Global Strategy, the Collapse of the Soviet Empire and the Question of Peace (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.
2 See I. William Zartman, cited in Brahm, Eric. "Hurting Stalemate Stage." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003.
3 See Hall Gardner, Dangerous Crossroads: Europe, Russia, and the Future of NATO (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997).
4 Hall Gardner, “Chapter 10: The Genesis of NATO Enlargement and of War ‘over’ Kosovo” Central and Southeastern Europe in Transition: Perspectives on Success and Failure since 1989, ed. Hall Gardner (Westport, CT: Praeger, March 1999).
5 William Perry, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford University Press 2015), 148.
6 Roger Cohen, “The Making of Vladimir Putin Tracing Putin’s 22-year slide from statesman to tyrant” New York Times (Published March 26, 2022; Updated March 28, 2022).
7 Craig Campbell, Illogic of Henry Kissinger's Nuclear Strategy, Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer 2003).